In January 1964
a story by Robert Schroeder and myself, "Photographing the Night Creatures of Alligator Reef", appeared in
National Geographic Magazine. The images were like nothing people had seen
before and night diving suddenly became something many divers wanted to try.
That same month I departed on a four month long around the world trip involving
diving in the Seychelles, Mauritius, the Great Barrier Reef, and Tahiti.
Once back in the Keys I began thinking about a dome port as the solution to use of
extreme wide angle lenses underwater. Inquiries to Eastman Kodak and Corning
glass indicated a price of about $20,000 to grind such a dome from a block of
optical glass. At that time $20K would buy about 5 or 6 new mid-range
automobiles. The idea was put on hold for awhile. Then one day I was visiting a
relative and sitting on his coffee table was a marine compass. Suddenly it
dawned on me, there was the dome I was looking for! I called a compass repair
shop in Miami and found I could get a 5 inch dome for $15. I then called Bob Gilka, Director of Photography at
National Geographic to borrow a Nikon F plus
21 mm and 8mm Fisheye lenses to experiment with. Both were expensive lenses and
I think Bob was a bit dubious that I could do what the experts so far had not
done but he was willing to let me try.
I quickly put together a crude housing using a section of heavy PVC sewer pipe
with acrylic end plates and positioned the dome where I figured it should be. It
had only one control, a shutter release. At first I tried a small 3˝" dome as
the 5" one had not yet arrived. It worked! The image was a little soft, but
still useable. In a few days the better dome arrived and I tried again. The
results were perfect!
Both the 21 mm and fisheye lenses had optics that projected behind the lens
mount and required the reflex mirror to be locked up to use them. Viewing and
framing was accomplished by small accessory optical viewfinders mounted on the
camera's flash shoe. As there was no reflex view there was no advantage to the
SLR camera body and I decided to make an adapter to use them with a dome port on
a Nikonos body.
At the machine shop of the Institute of Marine Science in Miami I turned out a
prototype and my friend, pioneer underwater photographer Gerry Greenberg,
offered to have a few copies made for himself, me and National Geographic. Then
we went on to use the dome principle to successfully house a Widelux panoramic
camera for underwater use. This camera used a semicircular film path and
rotating lens to create an undistorted 140° image on wide aspect format.
By then a year had passed. In July 1965 the first killer whale in captivity had
been captured near the remote salmon fishing port of Namu in northern British
Columbia. It had been accidentally surrounded by a salmon net and was being held
while a large floating cage was being constructed to bring it to Seattle. Bob
Gilka called and asked if I would like to try to get some photos. I went. Using
an adapter I had made to attach and operate the fisheye Nikonos on a pole I got
a few shots but the water was murky and while you could see it was obviously a
killer whale close up the images were not great. After several days experience
with Namu I decided to try getting in the water. At that time killer whales had
a fearsome reputation and underwater experience of them did not exist. I had had
various experience of dolphins both in the wild and in captivity and to me Namu
seemed very similar. I entered the water just outside the net and when I
approached it Namu came over for a look. It was only a salmon gill net, hardly
noticeable in the 10-12 foot visibility. From a few feet away Namu looked
awesome but showed no aggression. I took a few more pictures but the results
were no better.
Subsequently Namu was taken to Seattle and we began to learn that orcas are not
the bloodthirsty killers we imagined. In fact they, like all other cetaceans,
treat us with a respect exhibited by no other large wild animals and in no way
earned by own treatment of them.
As the ongoing Namu story developed in Seattle other photographers were assigned
to cover it. One of these, a well know free lancer at the time, was lent the
Nikonos fisheye adapter I had sent National Geographic. The Geographic typically
takes a long time to publish stories and before the Namu story eventually
appeared Popular Photography came out with a feature on Namu and on the amazing
new underwater fisheye adapter developed by…, you guessed it, the free lancer,
who was now selling his own (optically deficient) copy of the adapter. Neither
National Geographic nor Popular Photography were very happy with the
photographer involved and Popular Photography published a correction in the next issue.
The next year a similar thing happened when some photos I had lent an early
underwater photo equipment company in the Keys for promotion purposes were
entered under the name of the company president into the premiere UW photo
contest of the day. Two won first place awards.
It appears the prospect of immediate fame and gain totally blinds some
personalities to obvious and almost certain consequences. Numerous examples of
high level corporate and political misconduct repeatedly follow the same
For myself, I was more amused by the stupidity than annoyed by the attempted
thefts. Some wondered why I was not more concerned but I had lost nothing and
the smidgeon of recognition involved did not seem to have any real relevance to the
future I was aiming toward.
Meanwhile SLR technology was advancing rapidly. Macro lenses, action finders and
through the lens metering offered obvious advantages and required little or no
adaptation to use underwater. Electronic flash synchronization was at first
effected by semi-permanent connections that had to be made on the surface. This
was reliable but clumsy and after some trial and error I came op with a solution
using a small battery and capacitor in the camera housing and a simple SCR
(silicone controlled rectifier) circuit acting as a high-speed solid-state relay
in the flash housing. With this setup a non-water tight external connection
could be used to connect camera and flash thus enabling easy reliable flash
connection at any time, even underwater. Unfortunately all of the extra leads
involved in today's TTL flash precludes this approach today as flash synch
connection is still a major source of problems in underwater photography.
Commercial housings were beginning to appear and by the end of the decade the
latest and best photo technology were available to anyone. All you needed was
money. More and more I was attracted to film. Far fewer were doing it. One could
show things to which still images just couldn't do justice. There was only
limited off the shelf equipment available and thus more opportunity to develop
technology to do things that were not being done. Also there was much better
budgets and return from TV than there was from print media. Nice too was the
opportunity to see many films through to the finished product instead of having
editors make hash of one's work as so often happens with print.
On the reef itself I was beginning to acquire both a broad view from many areas
as well as an in-depth perspective from 10 years of ongoing work at Alligator
Reef. The picture I was developing was quite different from conventional ideas
of ecology many of which still persist today. It was obvious reefs are highly
variable communities changing dramatically from reef to reef, area to area, and
even on the same reef over time. Healthy reefs might comprise a half dozen
species of corals and 100 kinds of fish as in the Eastern Pacific or 500 corals
and 2000 fishes in the far Western Pacific or anything in between.
Nearby reefs can have quite different species abundance and from year to year
the species on a particular reef can shift and change. It was obvious these were
not the intricately structured communities widely imagined but highly flexible
systems that can assemble healthy communities from whatever the chances of
distribution and larval settlement make available. Many different organisms can
fulfill the same roles in the community and it does not matter who does what so
long at what is needed gets done. Recruitment, food, habitat and predators limit
species abundance. If one factor is not limiting another will be and other
species adjust accordingly.
Many reef creatures are remarkably flexible in their behavior. Competition may
restrict them to a narrow niche but in its absence they can and do take
advantage of opportunities one would normally never expect. Reefs are not the
delicately balanced house of cards ready to collapse at a nudge as popularly
imagined. They are really quite robust and flexible with a surprising capacity
to shift and accommodate to significant changes and pressures.
In September 1960 severe hurricane Donna hit the middle Keys. In addition to
massive damage ashore, at Alligator Reef it uprooted and smashed corals and coral
rubble scoured the reef to barren rock and sand down to a depth of 20 feet.
Offshore in deeper water corals were unbroken but largely smothered in a thick
blanket of silt. I had already been diving the area for five years and knew it
well from hundreds of dives. Looking at the barren reef shortly after the storm
one would have expected it to take many years to recover but I also knew that an
even more severe storm had swept the area some 25 years earlier and the reef had
recovered. Donna presented a chance to watch it do so again.
Within three weeks of the storm the bone-white rubble and rock were covered in a
thick tannish growth of blue-green algae. In a couple of months various brown,
green and red algae had begun to take over. In a year gorgonians were prominent
again and stony coral colonies were beginning to appear. Five years later a
casual observer would be unaware that anything had happened. On the deep reef
rough weather and currents dispersed most of the silt within a year. Amazingly,
much of the attached life survived the siltation.
If one is aware of what regularly occurs in nature million dollar fines for
accidental ship groundings and large scale programs to artificially re-establish
coral growth afterwards does not leave one with great confidence in the
managerial competence of the
In my ten years of work at Alligator Reef over 20,000 scientific specimens of
fishes were collected. This work recorded what is still the greatest number of
fishes known from any single locale in the New World. The total was five hundred
seventeen species. Sixty of these had never before been found in U.S. waters and
19 were previously unknown to science.
During the period from 1964 through 1968 while I was further developing
underwater photo equipment and becoming more involved with filming my main
activity was not this but was the biological research. I had research grants and
contracts from the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research and
the National Geographic Society. I had also started a company to manufacture
various equipment I had developed. Although all this was interesting and kept me
busy I was very aware that success could be a trap and I did not want any of
these things as a long term career. What I really wanted was to build my own
extended range research vessel and spend my time on and in the sea, exploring
remote reefs and islands well away from the worlds of business, academia and the
It was dream that was to